This week Jeremy Corbyn, on a visit to Brussels, is expected to criticise David Cameron’s call for an ‘emergency brake’ on benefits for new migrants. In a break with popular opinion, Corbyn will describe Cameron’s demands as potentially discriminatory. Corbyn’s actions are seen as high-risk and controversial because they are so radical compared to the arguments being made by the Conservatives and UKIP. Leading figures in the Labour Party are concerned that declaring the benefit brake as discriminatory will not appeal to voters in the May local elections and may portray Labour as soft on immigration. That they make such an argument demonstrates just how effective anti-immigration parties have been in convincing the public that benefits attract migrants. To some extent, this idea is based on Borjas’ (1999) welfare magnet theory – the idea that high levels of welfare attract high levels of low-skilled migrants while repelling high-skilled migrants who are reluctant to make contributions. His theory was based on analysis of US data and lacks explanatory potential in Europe. Nonetheless it is important to explore the usefulness of these ideas for the UK as they are so salient to the current debate.

The majority of work on the relationship between benefits and migration is undertaken by economists who look for correlations between migrant numbers and levels of benefits. While findings are variable and very much depend on the methods used, there is no clear evidence that there are higher numbers of EU migrants in countries with higher levels of benefits. In order to assess whether migrants are attracted by benefits it is necessary to explore with migrants their reasons for migration. Again the evidence is lacking – a review by Kathy Burrell in 2010 finds EU migrants are motivated by the need for jobs followed, for younger migrants, by the desire for new experiences.

Yet we do find that migrants are more likely than the general population to be in receipt of some types of benefits in the UK. In a study colleagues and I completed for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which looked at migrant poverty we analysed various national datasets and reviewed the evidence base to explore EU migrants’ access to benefits and their experiences of poverty. We found EU migrants were much less likely to be in receipt of out-of-work benefits than UK nationals (despite being eligible) but more likely to be in receipt of in-work benefits. The analysis revealed a very close relationship between low wage, poor quality employment and poverty indicators. We identified extensive evidence of EU migrants working very long hours in poor conditions and lacking the time and money they needed to attend language classes. There was also evidence of an association between these poor conditions and mental and physical ill health, poor housing conditions as well as weak social networks. Even when they received in-work benefits, EU migrants were vulnerable to poverty and, arguably, being poor prevented them from meeting another of the government’s expectations for migrants: to integrate through learning English and mixing with UK residents.

We know that EU migrants come to the UK to work and that they often fill gaps in the labour market – working in low-paid, dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs with unsociable hours that the UK population do not want. Their work makes them more vulnerable to industrial injury and abuse by employers while providing the UK population with affordable produce and care, amongst other services. Removing rights to in-work benefits will not affect migration levels but it will intensify poverty and make integration even more difficult. The 2010 Equality Act notes that it is unlawful to discriminate against, harass, victimise or treat someone less favourably because they have, or are perceived to have, a ‘protected characteristic’. Race is one such characteristic. Discrimination against migrants has been widely described as the new racism. By treating EU migrants less favourably than the general population we discriminate against them. Effectively, we condemn them to live in poverty while they do the work we need but will not do ourselves. Corbyn, it would seem, is offering an alternative political discourse on EU migration that has some foundation in evidence. The concern being expressed about his raising the possibility of discrimination should be seen as controversial, rather than the use of the term itself. Such a response indicates that in the UK moral panic about migration has reached such a level that we have lost sight of some of the gains we made in the last decades around equality and human rights. Responsible politicians would do well to remember these are hard-won gains and to question whether it is morally right to place political expedience over equality. Ignoring potential discrimination is in itself a high-risk strategy: if we make exceptions for EU migrants we might ask – who next? 

Professor Jenny Phillimore FRSA FAcSS

Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS), School of Social Policy